Category Archives: Vocabulary

It’s all down hill from here

One thing that I think should always be cherished about the UK is the number of regional accents that co-exist within such a remarkably small place. Given that we’re talking about a country which could practically fit within New York State, it’s pretty astonishing that you can get as diverse range of styles of speech as Brummie (Birmingham), Cockney (London), Geordie (Newcastle), Scouse (Liverpool) and so on. And that’s before you even think about Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Ask a random Brit to identify which part of the country I come from, and I think most of them would probably struggle. Of course, part of that assumption comes from everybody’s belief that they “don’t really have an accent”. Even when that person speaks like someone rejected at the auditions for “Liverpool: The Musical” for being too unintelligible. But really any unambiguous accent I might once upon a time have had has been beaten out of me by years of school, ten years in London, and my current sojourn in New York.

My desire for belonging, however, is such that whenever I make a trip back home (as I did this weekend), my native accent ratchets up a few notches, until I’m sounding a little like Liam Gallagher from Oasis on occasions. It’s an experience that is particularly odd given that I don’t even come from Manchester.

In part, it’s probably a reaction to my abject terror of ever being thought of as having an American accent. Every time I head home, I’ll be part way through a conversation and somebody will inevitably pipe up with “glad to hear that you haven’t lost your British accent”, as if they’ve been expecting me to come back talking like Janice from Friends. Little do they realise that I employ the services of a small Filipino lady who once lived in Chiswick, to follow me around and attach electrodes to my testicles in the event of me saying a-loo-min-um.

Sadly I couldn’t afford the plane ticket for Juanita to join me in the UK this weekend. And while I managed to get through with my reputation largely unscathed, I now have to concede that I am unable to pronounce one particular word in the way that language experts (also known as ‘the English’) intended.

Zed’s dead, baby. Zed’s dead.

Three times during the course of the weekend, I attempted to use the word that has come to represent the 26th letter of the alphabet. Yet whether I was trying to get from A-Z, or was considering the implications of x, y and z, my brain reached into its well thumbed dictionary and provided me with the word ‘zee’.

Each time it happened, I looked at the person I was talking to in order to gauge whether they had noticed. And each time my head dropped as the listener recoiled in horror at the z-bomb that I had just dropped into conversation.

Sure, I attempted to explain that I had been talking about a conversation with an American, or that I had been referencing something that happened to me in New York. And people nodded understandingly. But we all knew that the game was up. After many years of good service, zed is packing up its bags and saying goodbye to its vocabulary chums. It’s a dark day.

One down, 19,999 to go.

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I don’t really talk about personal things on this blog, certainly not in specifics. But I can’t really write about being in the UK this weekend without saying why I was there.

Long-time readers might recall a character within these pages called The Beancounter. His real name is Jonny, and he’s been a great friend to me since we were both 11. And just to be fair to him, the only beans he counts these days are the baked variety that he shovels into his mouth.

On May 4, Jonny’s lovely wife Jo passed away at the all too young age of 32. I spent a few months living with the two of them a few years ago when Jonny and Jo were looking for a new place to live. While they both thought that they were a burden to be taking up a room in my house, little did they realise that I was gutted to see them leave, such were the happy times we’d shared while they were there. What was clear then, and what was clear from the words of the packed church at the service to celebrate her life, is that Jo had a huge impact on everybody that she came into contact with. She was kind, compassionate, funny, smart and great company. Frankly, the world’s a less well-off place without her in it.

Words can’t really do justice to anyone who leaves us far too early, but I couldn’t let Jo’s passing go unmentioned. She will truly be missed.

New York in three words

If you’re of a particularly nervous disposition, New York is one of those cities that can chew you up and spit you out. It’s a city that takes no prisoners, and you just have to dive in and hope for the best (or grab some armbandswater wings and get yourself into the shallow end). I’ve had to learn to develop a thick skin, not take things too seriously, and always be ready for every eventuality. And that’s just in my dealings with The Special One.

To be fair, when I first moved to London, I hated it with a level of passion that I had only previously managed to demonstrate when eating egg and beetroot salad. The fact that I lived with a curly haired freak who played the saxophone at all hours of the day, and that I was duly forced to retreat to my bedroom the size of a malnourished cloakroom to escape, didn’t help. Nor did working for a company that let me cut my teeth in journalism but at the same time managed to provide me with a healthy understanding of the standard of human rights for employees in, say, North Korea.

It took a year, and a change of employer, before I finally managed to feel like I belonged in the big smoke. And I’ve certainly settled into New York much more quickly than that. But having an insider guide me through the nuances and vagaries of New York life has certainly helped immeasurably.

Of course, not everybody is so fortunate. Particularly when English isn’t your first language. Not that English is necessarily the first language of New Yorkers either. I have it on good authority that the 2000 census found that the primary language of the city was Anger, with Impatiencism being the most-followed religion.

On the subway into work yesterday, a young Russian woman sat next to me, eagerly reading language flash cards in a bid to improve her vocabulary. Each card had one English word on the front, while the back featured the pronunciation and an explanation of the meaning of the word. In the short time I was sitting next to the woman, I saw her examine three individual words – three words that took her one (or three) steps closer to feeling like she truly belongs here.

So what were the words that flash card manufacturers decided were vital to include in their tools for people learning English for use in New York? ‘Cab’, ‘tip’ and ‘pizza’ perhaps? Or maybe ‘bagel’, ‘coffee’ and ‘liberty’?

Nope.

‘Vicious’, ‘unyielding’ and ‘wily’.

She may not be able to order breakfast, but if she ever fancies buying a used car in the city then she’s got everything she needs to know.

Hello hello hello

One of the things that I constantly get asked by people back in the UK is how long it’s going to take for me to lose my British accent, or get some kind of mid-Atlantic twang. Frankly, I don’t think it’s ever going to happen, and if I ever start talking about a-loo-min-um foil, or begin to refer to my ‘mom’ then something is rotten in the state of Brooklyn.

And don’t get me started on words like ‘Peter’ and ‘water’ – somehow the t’s appear to go missing in action in this country, only to be magically replaced by d’s. If you ever hear me asking ‘Peeder’ if he wants a glass of ‘warder’, then you have my absolute permission to shoot me.

Of course, it’s the natural instinct of man to adapt to his surroundings. When The Matchmakers used to come to visit me in the UK, Mr Matchmaker was an incredibly adaptable accent chameleon. By the end of a week long stay, he could conceivably find gainful employment as a butler in the most old-fashioned of country piles.

For me though, there’s one reason above all others why I could never give in to accent slip. It’s the fact that I could never manage to say ‘what’s up’ with a straight face.

For the vast majority of Americans, the word ‘hello’ has been replaced by ‘what’s up’. Walking out of the office to get a sandwich yesterday, I was ‘what’s upped’ by no less than four people in a thirty second period. Including two people who simultaneously what’s upped me as I left the liftelevator. And another who slapped me on the shoulder.

To most Brits, ‘what’s up’ is used as a phrase to denote concern or worry. It is not a greeting, and it is certainly not a rhetorical question. Only now am I slowly realiszing that I do not need to respond. For the last three months, my casual greetings have gone something like this:

Vague acquaintance: “Hey, what’s up?”

BOOW: “Well, I’ve been struggling recently with a bit of a sore leg. I think it all started when I went to the gym and got tangled up in that elliptical thing that really hurts your back if you’re on it for too long. You know, the one with the ski handles? Anyway, then The Special One made me carry sixty three boxes up the stairs to the apartment, and I think I might have done some permanent damage, as I’m really having difficulty sleeping. Anyway, just as I finally managed to sit down, the phone rang and then I got caught up in a thirty-five minute conversation with a call centre in Mumbai about why I should take car insurance. I wouldn’t mind but we don’t even have a car. Apart from tha…”

Vague acquaintance: “Sorry to interrupt, but I’ve got to go gnaw my own arm off.”

I have no idea why ‘hello’ won’t suffice, to be honest. Or even a simple ‘how are you?’ At least I know that’s a question that demands an answer, even if the person who asked it isn’t remotely interested in the answer. It just allows me to respond to with a jaunty ‘I’m fine’, and be on my way. As it is, I now just laugh like a halfwit when anybody gives me a ‘what’s up’, in a manner that’s designed to say ‘Things are crazy around here’ but which probably just sounds like ‘I’m a nervous socially inadequate Brit – please don’t hurt me.’

Incidentally, I quickly Google searched ‘what’s up’ to see if I could shed any light on its origin. I didn’t get very far before being bogged down in 4 Non Blondes videos, but I did find a fascinating entry on Wikipedia. The short article claimed that ‘what’s up’ is now being abbreviated in many forms for the SMS and IM era, notably “sup”, “waz up”, “wts up”, “wts new” and “waz happenin”. My personal favourite though is “waz crackalackin”. And you wonder why I’m confident that I’m not going to find myself Americaniszed?

Anybody who can provide documentary and verified evidence that they managed to use the phrase ‘crackalackin’ at least once in a work context, by the way, gets a gold star and the freedom of the Brit Out Of Water kingdom.

Just brilliant

I’m slowly learning my newly adopted language, despite the galling lack of a rosetta stone (of either the granite or CD variety) in American English to help me along the way. Admittedly I’m still thinking in the English language and consciously translating into American, but we’ve all got to start somewhere, huh?

This lunchtime in the liftelevator, for example, I managed to correct myself just before telling somebody I’d spent ten minutes in the queue at Hale & Hearty, and reluctantly spluttered out the word ‘line’ instead. In a meeting this morning, I impressed even myself when I was able to say ‘process’ with a hard vowel sound rather than the more soothing soft ‘oh’ that we use in, well, English.

But there are plenty of Englishisms that I simply can’t – and when it comes down to it, won’t – remove from my vocabulary, however incongruous they sound when used on this side of the pond. I’m still on the pavement, for example. I won’t wear a sweater and pants, but I will wear a jumper and trousers. And most of all, I’m still completely brilliant.

‘Brilliant’ is one of those words that I’ve now used for approximately 30 years, to describe anything from Manchester United’s attackingoffensive play through to a great meal. I’ve used derivations such as ‘brill’ and ‘skilliant’ (and the closely associated ‘skill’), and I’m more than capable of saying it three or four times a day if I’m having a particularly pleasant time.

Sadly, of course, saying it in America suggests that I’m referring to whiter-than-white whites, or a remarkably striking blue sky. And I suppose technically they’re right, according to the dictionary:

adjective 1 (of light or colour) very bright or vivid. 2 exceptionally clever or talented. 3 Brit. informal excellent; marvellous. Derived French brillant, from briller ‘shine’, probably from Latin beryllus ‘beryl’.

While Americans will generally understand what I’m saying, they’ll give me one of those looks that says “you think you’re from a classic line of eccentric Englishman and that you can get away with it, but you’re actually just an idiot.”

I suppose I should start using ‘awesome’, brilliant’s lesser American cousin. But given that Americans appear to pronounce it ‘are-some’ (hello, there’s a ‘w’ in it, people!) it’ll be a cold day in hell before I fall into that habit. In any case, by switching to an alternative, I’d be losing one of my favourite words in the English language. And that would be far from brilliant.